What does it take to be a good citizen?
When the Pew Research Center recently asked nearly 3,600 Americans what traits or behaviors go to the heart of good citizenship, the most common response was voting: Seven out of 10 US adults described voting as a “very important” aspect of being a good citizen.
No other answer came close. Getting a COVID-19 vaccine was deemed very important to being a good citizen by 44 percent of Pew’s respondents; nearly as many (42 percent) said the same about taking steps to “help reduce the effects of global climate change.” Just 37 percent thought that following political developments in the United States was key to being a good member of society. Fewer still, 22 percent, attached importance to attending religious services or keeping up with international news.
In a similar survey four years earlier, Pew asked about a somewhat different list of civic behaviors, but voting topped the results then, too. Fully 74 percent of respondents said participating in elections was very important to being a good citizen.
I have nothing against voting. I’ve been doing so regularly for decades. But the notion that voting is the essential marker of good citizenship strikes me as completely off-base. The right to vote is certainly a cherished privilege of citizenship. Countless men and women marched and struggled and even died to secure that right for every American adult, regardless of race, sex, or wealth.
Nevertheless, casting a ballot is at best a tiny part of the work of citizenship. It takes very little effort to vote — at most it requires a few moments at a polling place once or twice every couple of years. Elections are necessary for self-government. But if your involvement in civic life goes no further than sporting an “I Voted!” sticker, the caliber of your citizenship leaves a lot to be desired.
What is required to be a good citizen? If Pew asked me that question, I would reply that it requires, first and foremost, the cultivation of the virtues on which a healthy civil society depends. Honesty is essential to good citizenship. So is tolerance. And respect for private property. And productive employment. And self-restraint.
But those are only the barest minimum.
Much more vital to being a good citizen is a commitment to some form of service in the common good — membership in what the British statesman Edmund Burke called the “little platoons” without which no society can function. From America’s earliest days, the defining characteristic of our democratic life together has been the myriad of voluntary associations and charitable endeavors that make possible the American way of life.
“What strikes me most in the United States is … the innumerable multitude of small enterprises,” marveled Alexis de Tocqueville about America in the 1830s. The French aristocrat, author of the most perceptive book ever written on American democracy, expressed his “daily astonishment” at the “immense works” carried out by volunteers acting for the benefit of society.
American citizens step forward in numberless ways to improve their communities and their country — they organize blood drives and coach Little League and resettle refugees and raise funds for medical research and donate to museums and pitch in at food pantries and preserve open space and deliver meals to shut-ins. In so doing, they cultivate a healthy civil society, and thereby reinforce Americans’ capacity for effective self-government.
To be good citizens, Americans must of course be law-abiding, pay their taxes, and show up for jury duty when summoned. But the essence of good citizenship doesn’t consist in following the rules, just as it doesn’t consist in casting a ballot on Election Day. It consists in civic participation — in not leaving it to others, let alone to government, to act for the common good. In her 2021 book “A Beginner’s Guide to America,” the writer and poet Roya Hakakian, an immigrant from Iran, describes America as a “land of strangers” who “bond through shared love.” That is what good citizenship looks like.
It has been said time and again that America is the only nation rooted not in land or blood or language, but in an idea — the idea that all people are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. To be a good citizen of such a nation takes work. Showing up to vote isn’t enough.